Sunday, 30 October 2016

Obscure Comic of the Month - The Illustrated Guide to the Elements: Volume 1

Obscure Comic of the Month takes a detailed look at a little known entry from my personal comic book collection. Some will be from major publishers, others self published projects, Original Graphic Novels, issues and Manga. What they'll all have in common though, is that I've rarely, if ever, seen anybody talk about them.


The Illustrated Guide to the Elements: Volume 1 by Jenna Whyte – 2012

The Illustrated Guide to the Elements is not, technically an obscure comic. Okay, it isn't a comic full stop, but you know what? It's got words and pictures and I want to talk about it. This is my column and I can break the rules if I want to.

The conceit behind Jenna Whyte's Guide to the Elements is a fairly straightforward one, but it's also sort of brilliant. Take the periodic table, reinterpret the elements as 'emotionally dangerous' women and write the guide in the style of a psudo-Victorian/steampunk psychological study, with some beautiful, period appropriate illustrations to go along with it.

What really makes Whyte's book interesting is that it has things to say both scientifically and socially. The scientific side is fairly obvious, re-framing elemental properties as personality quirks makes reading about the elements both fun and memorable. Seriously, Whyte's book would probably come in handy if you're a high school chemistry teacher and want to get a bunch of goth kids interested in the difference between H20 and H202.

But what the book also does, through the way it looks at it's elements-as-characters, is also remind us how oppressive the nineteenth century was to those who found it difficult to fit into society, especially difficult women. The steampunk genre loves to mine the trappings of the Victorian era while often having very little to say about the period it cribs from. Whyte's book is a deconstruction of sorts, and hearing tales of Lithium being attended constantly by psychiatrists and Flourine's varied escape attempts from 'The Asylum for Electron Challenged Elements' are as sobering as they are informative.

The book tells us, in great detail, the tales of criminals and social climbers, spurned lovers and deadly killers. But it uses the elemental system to give the impression that it is society that made them that way.

There's an intense streak of black comedy that keeps Whyte's book from being truly grim however, and the book is chock full of characters straight of out the era's penny dreadfuls. Poisoners are common in Volume 1. Compulsively, like Thallium, or by trade, like Bismuth. Whyte doesn't shy away from telling us, in grizzly detail, what fates would befall us should we ever encounter the wrong end of these troubling elements.

Whyte's art, of course, is the true star of the show, having a real flair for capturing the vitality of period dress, without going too overboard on the steampunk influences. It's got a taste of Lewis Caroll without falling into Tim Burton. There are finely dressed women, and sultry dressed women, posh nobles and deranged convicts, each rendered in a grimy watercolour style that manages to be both elegant and decadent. The writing and the art goes hand in glove.

Still, there's room for improvement. Whyte's writing is very evocative, but at times certain entries can drag on a little too long filling up far too much of the page with information. At the same time some entries are woefully short, feeling a little underwritten and sparse. Whyte is clearly well versed in the science behind the book, so she probably gave serious consideration on what to include and what to pass on, but at times the book feels unbalanced, and it's hard not to notice that.

There's also handful of typos but that's part and parcel when it comes to self-publishing, so I'm not going to fault her on that.

Another issue I have is that given that the book has such a grand collection of characters, it unfortunately buys in to Victorian myth of England's whiteness. There are a couple of characters who are vaguely Asian looking, but by and large it's a collection of mostly white folks here. This feels like a missed opportunity and a disservice to Whyte's own artwork, and I feel the book could have been even more interesting with a more racially diverse cast mirroring the diversity of the elements they are based on.

Still, there's Volume 2 that I'm long overdue in checking out, so maybe these criticisms have already been resolved, and Whyte is still producing artwork that's well worth checking out, so here's looking forward to what comes in the future.


Jack Harvey 2016. The Illustrated Guide to the Elements (c) Jenna Whyte. Images used under fair use.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Lisa Cummings and a Case of Bad Cheese

The Lisa Cummings stories are a short series of comedic mysteries. The first of which was The Case of the Exploding Meat (Part One, Part Two,) the second was The Five Minue Murder (Here,). I'm currently working on a full legnth Cummings novel. In the mean time, here's another short.


Lisa Cummings and a Case of Bad Cheese
By Jack Harvey

“Well,” Andy nodded, as the huddle of officers escorted three guilty men into the back of the luminous police van. It was stationed by the canal lock gate.

“Well what?” Lisa said, flipping through a note book.

“You're acting fucking coy again.” Andy's voice hardened. “You know I don't like it when you do that.”

Lisa put the note book away and smiled.

“I was going to praise you for tracking down the smugglers so quickly, even by your standards. But praise always goes straight to your head.”

Lisa's smile softened for a moment. “Thank you.”

Andy face dropped, suggesting he felt guilty for underestimating Lisa's gratitude. Putting it out of his mind, he quickly turned around.

“Alright boys,” he shouted to the officers near by. “Let's open it up!”

Quickly and efficiently three officers moved to the garage door. One of them held their bolt cutters up to the chained lock and cut the metal through. Then, another quickly made for the door's own, separate lock and held up some sort of device. Lisa assumed it must have been some form of automatic lock pick.

“I thought you said all the fancy kit got sent back to London?” she asked him.

Andy shrugged. “They've got to let us northerners keep something, to prove they haven't forgotten about us. It looks good on the quarterly reports.”

The men raised the shutters and the afternoon light illuminated the garage's interior. Whatever actual motor-vehicle related equipment it once held was now long gone. The building appeared to be packed wall-to-wall with various crates and containers. Stickers and stamps from all over the world were plastered on them.

Lisa and Andy entered the room.

“So,” Lisa said, slapping her hands together. “What do you think we've got ourselves here? Drugs? Guns? Stolen electronics?” Lisa thought for a moment, then gasped. “Sex workers?”

“God I hope not,” Andy wearily answered. “The paperwork would be astronomical.”

“Maybe.” Lisa continued excitedly. “Maybe they'd be so grateful for being liberated from servitude that they'd, you know, give a round for free?”


“Sank you dear lady,” Lisa said in some kind of bad attempt at an eastern European accent. “Ohh, how magh I ever repay you? I voud do anysigng.”

“Wow.” Andy was almost lost for words. “Not only did you manage to make that sexist, and racist, but somehow super creepy as well. And you missed a prime opportunity for a 'Cummings' pun.”

Lisa made a face back at him. “Stop trying to make Cummings puns happen Andy. Cummings puns are never going to happen.”

“Never tell me about your fantasises again.”

“What about my script for a porno version of Blade Runner?”

Andy turned and looked at her, eyebrows raised. “Maybe later.”

They approached the closest crate. It was about waist hight, and had been hammered down with nails.

Andy took a crowbar from the officer standing to his left. “Alright then, lets crack one of these babies open.”

Quickly he shoved the crowbar into the side of the lid and pushed down, grunting a little in frustration as he did.

“Why didn't you get one of the big boys to do it?” Lisa asked, mockingly.

Andy refused to grace her with a response and pushed down harder. Soon the lid started to come loose, and he dropped the crowbar, pulling the rest away with his bare hands.

“Watch for splinters,” Lisa said in a mocking, motherly voice.

“Shut up!”

The crate appeared to have been lined with some kind of plastic insulation. There was a strange heat emanating from it's contents.

It was followed by a very distinct smell, curious at first, but soon the putrid odour became overpowering.

“Jesus!” Lisa shouted, putting her hand over her mouth and nose. “What is that smell?”

Cheesus would be more accurate,” said Andy, lifting the paper lid of one of the boxes. “It's Casu Marzu. This must be a fresh batch, some of these crates look like they're here for refrigeration.”

“What in the fuck?” Lisa was exasperated. “They went to all these lengths for a box of Gorgonzola or something?”

Andy turned to Lisa. There was a look on his face she couldn't quite place. It was like a mix of pity and regret. I were as though he had some bad news to deliver.

“You don't know what this stuff is do you? Why they'd be smuggling it?” He said.

Lisa shrugged nervously.

“I saw my great uncle eat some once when I was in Italy as a kid. It's cheese that goes through a secondary fermentation process.”


“Using insect larvae.”

Lisa paused for a moment. She swallowed. “Well that's kind of fucked up, but alright.”

“And it's considered bad form to eat the cheese without the larvae.”

Lisa could feel something in her stomach now. Her lunch was having second thoughts about staying where it was. Suddenly evacuating the stomach and going back the way it came was becoming an appealing idea. Lisa had to suppress the thought of her stomach contents sitting there, undecided.

Andy continued. “It's also considered bad form to eat the cheese if the larvae aren’t still alive.”

And there was that old familiar feeling that everybody knows. Lisa's throat swelled and she could feel her lunch fast returning.

She looked at the contents of the crate. It was probably her imagination, but she could swear the cheese was squirming, pulsating.

She put her hand over her mouth and tried to hold fast. She could feel the liquid working it's way upward, outward. She knew that swallowing would be a bad idea, that it would only tighten the throat pushing the stomach contents further along. She did it anyway, struggling to breathe, and with that, all resistance had been lost.

With nowhere else to go, Lisa ran toward the nearest corner and vomited violently onto the floor.

“Fuck,” Andy said, running over, before hovering a couple of steps back, outside the splash radius.

The first was mostly half digested food and liquid, easy going stuff all things considered. But as Lisa began to wipe her mouth with a handkerchief she could feel the second on it's way.

“I'm fine,” she lied. “I'm fine I just need a moment.”

Then she breathed in, and could smell the putrid cheese. More vomit ejected itself from Lisa's mouth. Denser this time, with a hearty dose of stomach acid that started to burn her throat. A great big lump of half digested food struggled up and out of her mouth. It landed on the floor with a plop.

The vomit splashed back from the wall and stained a portion of her white trainers.

Andy looked around helplessly. The other officers shrugged. He was unsure what to do at this point, so thought it best he replace the plastic insulation on the open crate and shut the lid. At the very least it wouldn't hurt.

Lisa was breathing heavily now and didn't bother to clean anything because she knew the third was inevitable. As a contrast to earlier she was feeling a little better, but the gears were in motion, and her stomach hadn't finished releasing it's bounty.

The third time she vomited was shorter than the others. It was out, quickly and painlessly, as Lisa was resigned to decorating the smuggler's garage with phlegm and stomach lining. She gathered the rest of the foul tasting residue with her tongue and spat it out onto the flour.

Lisa leaned against the wall, all signs of the outside world lost to her. Little made sense beyond spittle and vomit and maggot infested cheese.

Andy approached, handing her his own handkerchief. “Here,” he said softly.

As Lisa turned she keeled over the fourth and final time. All that remained was acidy water. Easy to come up, but uncomfortable. The luminous yellow vomit left Lisa's mouth and landed on Andy's clean black shoes.

“Awww, man, no, come on!” he shouted, hopping out of the way.

“Alright,” Lisa said, holding out a hand. “I'm done. I think I'm done.”

Andy called over to one of the officers. “Can I get a towel over here or something?”


Lisa and Andy sat by the canal as they watched the biological waste boys remove the crates in their hazard suits.

Andy was chuckling slightly.

“You know that's a story I'm going to have in my back pocket for a while you know?”

“Yeah, yeah!” Lisa said, dismissively.

“I'll be savouring that one for years to come.”

“I'm just glad I'm single at the moment.” Lisa said. “Girls are not fond of sickers.”

“Yeah, well, all things considered I can't blame you.” Andy said, folding his arms. “I was a little sick too when I first saw the stuff. Though I was just a kid back then.”

Lisa shook her head and spat into the handkerchief. “What I want to know is why they were smuggling it in the first place. What's the big deal?”

Andy looked over at her. “It's against European food regulations to serve something that involves a living organism. The stuff has had a disputed status for years. It's still under considerable debate back in Sardinia.”

“Fucking hell!” moaned Lisa, her stomach rolling at the thought again. “Well that might not be much of an issue over here for much longer. Who knows, Casu Marsu might be showing up on cheese boards around England in no time.”

“Yep,” sighed Andy, noticing he'd missed a few spots on his shoes. “That's why I voted remain.”